What determines Egyptian-Iranian relations?

Iran is seeking a rapprochement with Egypt (Photo by Adobe)

Relations between Cairo and Tehran have seen many ups and downs, says Ahmad Abdel-Rahman. In this article, he sets out the issues.

A review of Egyptian-Iranian relations raises more questions than answers. Given the détente that the region is witnessing in terms of reconciliations and easing of tensions between Iran and the Gulf states, Iran's current policy, known as neighbourhood diplomacy, has come to the fore.

The Saudi-Iranian agreement was the most important factor that strengthened Iran's confidence because it considered the agreement to be a gateway to improving relations with other countries with which it had tense relations. Egypt was one of those countries, yet there are no actual steps taken between the two parties to improve relations.

This raises many questions, including: "Does Cairo want to improve relations with Iran? Why should Iran wait if that is the intention? Why do statements about restoring relations between Iran and Egypt come from Iran and not represent the statements from inside Egypt? What is the supposed form of dialogue between Iran or Egypt? What are the expected benefits for both parties?

By tracking Egyptian-Iranian relations, it becomes clear that the course of relations between the two countries have witnessed many fluctuations, from tension to improvement, to tension again. However, the most important determinants that have played a role in influencing relations between the two countries is the structure of the international system, and the nature of the relationship between regional powers and international forces.

Internal developments in each of the two countries, which have played a role in changing the form of the ruling system, as well as trends and awareness of its regional and international role, the form and degree of compatibility between the ruling systems, the form of alliances, and the degree of geographical proximity and distance, have also been important. Despite the geographical distance between the two countries, there are many similarities, including the fact that Iran and Egypt have ambitions to expand. For example, Egyptian foreign policy, includes expanding its influence in the Gulf region as well as across Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Africa, the Red Sea, and Bab al-Mandab strait. Iran wants to expand its influence across the Arab world.

During the period in which Princess Fawzia of Egypt married the Shah of Iran, the two countries were allies of Britain. But with the change of regime in Egypt and the beginning of the rule of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, relations between the two countries worsened and the form of alliances changed. With tension in relations between Egypt and the US, Cairo became closer to the Soviet Union. There was also hostility between the two parties. This was crystallized in Iran's proximity to Israel and Egypt's rejection of the Baghdad Pact. Moreover, there was regional competition for moral leadership.

With the beginning of the rule of the late president Anwar Sadat, Egypt's relationship with the great powers changed. This was because Sadat improved relations with Washington and was keen to bring Cairo and Tehran closer. This was the case until the regime in Iran changed after the revolution in 1979. Relations then became strained. During the rule of the late President Hosni Mubarak, relations were characterised by stability. Therefore, the question is: What might prompt Egypt do to improve relations with Iran? Why does Iran want to improve relations with Egypt?

Egypt met Iranian calls for rapprochement with a slow response as well as coldness. While Egypt appreciated the Saudi-Iranian agreement, considering it an important step on the path to easing regional tensions, it made clear that what is most important is respecting the sovereignty of states, not interfering in internal affairs, and consolidating the concepts of good neighbourliness. Cairo perhaps saw that Tehran's calls within the framework of neighbourly diplomacy are merely tactical steps and do not represent real change in Iranian behaviour.

A fundamental question arises about whether the Iranian regime sees its regional policies as a cause of instability, and one that requires it to take steps and confidence-building measures? In general, the fluctuations in the relationship between Iran and the Arab Gulf states will remain one of the challenges of the relationship between Egypt and Iran. This is in line with Egypt's declared policy that Gulf security is part of Arab security. Egypt also aims to achieve stability in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, all of which are suffering from prolonged crises as a result of Iranian interference. This means that Iran's policy within those countries is a challenge to improving its relationship with Egypt as well as with other regional countries. 

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Saturday, 02 December 2023